Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Narrative Summary vs. Scenes--at the Movies

I blogged a while back about showing versus telling from a cinematic point of view. Well, luckily--or maybe unluckily--for you, I had another epiphany about the relationship between literature and film.

Books on writing spend almost as much time on the differences between narrative summary and scenes as they do on the nuances of showing and telling, maybe because the two ideas are so closely related. In short, narrative summary is a section of text with little or no dialogue. It summarizes a series of narrative events (hence the name), and it usually covers a longer period of time. Scenes, on the other hand, are second-by-second accounts of what’s happening to the characters in that moment. They tend to be rich with dialogue, and the conflict level within them is high.

In other words, narrative summary tends to tell whereas scenes tend to show.

So how does all of this relate to movies? That’s where my epiphany comes in. I realized that the cinematic equivalent of narrative summary is a montage and the cinematic equivalent of a scene is, well, a scene. While montages can be helpful tools when used in moderation, interesting, tension-filled scenes are the very building blocks of film--and they should be the building blocks of a book.

I mean, imagine a movie told entirely in montage. Boring as a documentary on growing grass, right? (Or maybe growing grass is really interesting on the molecular level or something. I’m not sure.) Now imagine a movie told with half montages and half scenes. Still pretty awful. In fact, even if the split were closer to sixty/forty, or eighty/twenty, you’d probably still be pretty bored. That’s because, as I mentioned in that other post, movies really have to show almost everything if they want to hold our interest. They have a few telling techniques, like montage and voiceover, but for the most part, if a director wants you to know something, he or she has to show it.

As writers, we should be the same way. Narrative summary can be useful in certain situations, like when we're transitioning from one scene to the next, but with narrative summary, less is always more. The meat of a book is in the scenes.

15 comments:

Kelly Bryson said...

Nice post. In Story by Robert McKee (You saw a reference to Story coming, right?) he says that montage "is an effort to make an undramatized exposition less boring by keeping the audience's eye busy...and is to be avoided." Although I don't mind it during opening credits, when you can't really start the movie yet anyway.

I don't think I'd mad ethe connection between montage and info dumps, so thanks!

Jenilyn Tolley said...

In my last job, we interviewed a guy who had run his own lawn care business for a while. We asked about that job and he went off on how much he LOVED grass. I've never, ever seen anyone that passionate about grass before. It was hilarious.

Thanks for the post!

Jess said...

What a great comparison! Being a big fan of movies (books too, of course), this made it easy to see how important it is to dole out the narrative summaries in small amounts and in the right places. Great post :)

Sierra Gardner said...

Great point. Most of the montages, etc in movies are only for a few seconds - just enough to get the point across. This is something I definitely want to work on in my writing so I appreciate the posts!

Krista V. said...

Kelly, I was hoping someone would mention STORY:) (Which I still haven't read, by the way. I need to remedy that...) Seems like most movies have a montage somewhere in the middle of the film, too, to show the MC training and becoming the superhero ready to fight the bad guy. In fact, that montage is so ubiquitous that Danny Elfman, a movie music composer, actually titled that track "Success Montage" in one of the films he scored.

Jeni, we all have to be passionate about something, right? Glad someone is passionate about grass - otherwise, it would feel left out:)

Jess, we watch quite a few movies, too. In fact, we just watched The Special Relationship last night, a British film about the friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Very interesting film.

Sierra, I'm glad you liked the post!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great comparison! I think my brain would melt if I had to watch an entire movie montage! :)

lotusgirl said...

very interesting premise. I love the idea of the montage as compared to telling. It hits home.

Ben Spendlove said...

Every montage I see makes me think of a hilarious parody I saw years ago. Kind of spoils the tension when the characters are racing to erect their defenses before the invaders arrive, and I'm laughing about a little red wagon full of pancakes. It's a good comparison to narrative summary.

Ben Spendlove said...

Hmm. I think it was funnier when I was younger.
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Krista V. said...

Jemi, I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Thanks for the comment, lotusgirl, and I'm glad you liked the post!

Ben, thanks for the Homestar Runner link. I discovered Strong Bad's e-mails when I was a freshman in college. We spent one whole evening huddled around my roommate's laptop, watching all the Strong Bad e-mail episodes. The Swedish one stands out in my mind, since that roommate grew up in Sweden and found the translations really funny.

Carol Riggs said...

Very interesting! Yes, narrative can be telling...not sure it ALWAYS is, though. Or maybe it is, but different writers have a way of making it feel/seem more interesting. Maybe good writers infuse conflict even in those narrative bits--internal thoughts, transitions, dialogue-less actions. Definitely something to ponder...

Krista V. said...

Carol, good points. THE HUNGER GAMES is the best example I could think of that doesn't use cut-and-dried scenes and yet still maintains a high level of conflict and interest. I mean, when your MC isn't interacting with other humans much, it's kind of hard to block out a book scene by scene. And you're right - great writers will always write what's best, even if that writing breaks the so-called rules, and make it work somehow.

Jennifer McFadden said...

Hi Krista - I just found your blog.0 Great post regarding the similarity with of scenes in movies and books. I find that it seems more natural (to me) to tell instead of show because of the college papers I wrote.

Myrna Foster said...

The funny thing is that I was listening to a book today where the character described montages as something boring that lazy film directors do.

I think it's okay to tell in little bits, but your story has more immediacy and emotional pull if you tell it in scenes.

Thanks for giving me something to think about!

Krista V. said...

Jennifer, welcome! Your comment about college papers made me laugh. My first post-college manuscript was pretty stuffy. The voice of academia could use a serious overhaul. (In fact, when my husband started his EdD last fall, their first class was a how-you-should-really-be-writing-academic-papers seminar. The whole point of the class was to undo all the bad writing habits they'd acquired over the rest of their college education:) )

Myrna, I agree that telling is okay in little bits. Finding the right balance is one of the great quests of revising.